How an authentic Swedish cottage from 1875 ended up in Central Park

One of the wonderful things about Central Park is the enormous variety of buildings spread out among its 843 acres of pastures, hills, and woodlands.

On the northwestern end of the park, the remains of a stone fort dating to 1814 harken back to a sparsely settled Manhattan. At the southeastern end is a former arsenal-turned-office space completed in 1851. On the western side near 79th Street is a circa-1872 miniature castle with the best views in the city.

But there’s one structure almost as old as Central Park itself that’s always been a curiosity: the Swedish Cottage, near Belvedere Castle and the Shakespeare Garden on the park’s west side.

Almost all of the structures in Central Park either predate the park or were built specifically for it. So how did an authentic Swedish log cabin, one with gothic-style arched windows and a steep peaked roof, end up in New York’s premier city green space?

Its journey begins in Sweden in 1875.

“Designed by architect Magnus Isæus to serve as the Swedish Pavilion for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the building was constructed in Sweden of oiled pine and cedar, then dismantled, packed in crates, and shipped to Philadelphia, where it was erected by Swedish craftsman on the Exposition grounds,” wrote Cynthia S. Brenwall and Martin Filler in 2019’s The Central Park: Original Designs for the New York’s Greatest Treasure.

Rather than a cottage, the building was actually a Swedish schoolhouse. It was a hit at the Exhibition—an event described as the first World’s Fair ever to be held in America.

“Furnished with desks and chalkboards and staffed by Swedish teachers, the pavilion was a popular attraction that served as an example of Scandinavian building design to the American public,” stated Brenwall and Filler.

Visitors to the Exhibition enjoyed this one-room Swedish schoolhouse. That included one very distinguished visitor: Frederick Law Olmsted, a co-designer of Central Park. Apparently he was so captured by it, he paid $1500 to buy it and have it shipped to Central Park, where it was reassembled in its current location in 1877, according to New York City, by Robert Kahn. (Above image: the cottage in 1880)

Finding a use for the Swedish Cottage, as it was now called, took some time. Over the years it served as a park restroom, a nature center, and civil defense headquarters during World War II, noted Kahn.

Since 1947, it’s been the home of the Marionette Theater, with a permanent theater built inside the cottage in 1973, per centralpark.com. Though the cottage has undergone renovation over the years, this authentic pine and cedar cabin that charmed Olmsted has since entertained thousands of city kids and their families.

[Third photo: MCNY, 1880; X2010.11.1559]

Tags: , , , , ,

9 Responses to “How an authentic Swedish cottage from 1875 ended up in Central Park”

  1. Hunza Says:

    Amazing

  2. countrypaul Says:

    Not just the surprising number of structures in Central Park but also their purposes and repurposes are fascinating. thank you for your wonderful insights and discoveries!

  3. andrewalpern Says:

    When I was a little boy living on West 82nd Street, I loved going to the Swedish Cottage to watch marionette shows put on by its resident puppet-maker, Mr. Assanio Spolidoro. As I remember him, he was an absolutely ancient white-haired man, but he probably was younger than I am now. After the show, we would always walk through the nearby Shakespeare Garden. Growing up with Central Park as our front yard was a treat. Winters we would go ice skating on Turtle Pond just below the Belvedere Castle. It would dependably freeze over every year; now it hardly ever does. And we’d sail our boats in the Conservatory Water at 70th Street (thankfully, still extant).

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      What a lovely description of being a young New Yorker with Central Park at your doorstep. Now if only we could have a few days every winter so cold the ponds and lakes in the park would freeze, and parkgoers could glide or skate on the ice. I get lost in the old black and white images of people skating in the park and feel envious.

  4. Greg Says:

    Very interesting, I’m surprised to have never heard of this!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It’s very low-key…you have to almost stumble upon it on your way to another attraction. But it’s unique, historic, and worth a good long look.

  5. velovixen Says:

    I have gone by the building a number of times, but I wasn’t aware of the history you described. Thank you!

    One thing I find interesting is that Americans were as fascinated (rightly, I believe) with “Scandinavian design” as we are now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: